India's Hidden KingdomExplore India's stunningly picturesque Himachal Pradesh on this overland journey by way of Spiti to the heart of Ladakh
South of Isfahan, at Pasargadae the tomb of Cyrus stands in lonely splendour at the entrance to his capital. Further south, the tombs of Darius and Xerxes are at Naqsh-e Rustam, close to the World Heritage-listed ruin of ancient Persepolis. Persepolis was the key to Darius’ kingdom, the ritual centre of the Persian Empire. It is one of the great cities of antiquity and like many others it too was sacked and burned. In this case by Alexander of Macedonia possibly in retribution for the Persian destruction of the Greek Acropolis in 480BCE.
Shiraz the poetic heart of Iran is is a short drive west of Persepolis. It is a lovely city, once the urbane centre for civilised life with a number of beautiful mosques and residence of the ever-popular poets Hafez and Sa’adi. Wherever you go in Iran prepare to be engaged by hospitable, friendly, curious locals. The women in our group of travellers were a prime target of interest to local women, particularly young fashion conscious women who seemed to be set on straining the boundaries of what we understood to be the conservative norm for women’s public attire. Tight jeans, form fitting knee length jackets, makeup and token headscarf draped precariously off the back of a bouffant hairdo are the norm rather than the exception amongst this demographic.
Iran has its own amazing blend of things to see and do. From the green forested north of the Caspian coast, through the central deserts and down to the blazing Gulf, Iran’s ancient and modern existences are a delight to explore. It is a country bent on keeping it’s faith in itself. Despite its troublesome and noisy neighbourhood, ordinary Iranians are busy building their lives in ways similar to our own. It’s a great place to travel, explore and learn.
This posting from Alison Reid following her recent SRA trip to Iran...read less
An overnight train is an easy option to reach Tabriz, a bustling city on the road to Turkey. We had no plan to stay for longer than it took to visit the Blue Mosque and get on the road to Kandovan, a kind of mini Cappadocia with a welcoming ‘rock hotel’ where the cave rooms are warm and decorated with local traditional artwork.
Further south our route followed the historic Royal Road, built in the 5th-century BCE to ensure that a message might travel from one end of the Persian Kingdom to the other in 15 days. Of course the ‘road’ is long gone but some of the waypoints can be seen and at Bisotun the Rosetta Stone-like recording of Darius’ military feats is carved in stone.
While at conservative Qom we women donned bourka’s to visit Fatima’s Shrine along with hundreds of welcoming women gathered there with friends and children for the feast day. In the courtyard we exchanged smiles with a religious gent in sombre attire, a proud Imam with a young daughter dressed in pink – leggings, dress, hoodie and Santa back-pack.
The desert city of Kashan is a good spot to have a day off to wander at leisure and enjoy the delightful Fin Gardens, where not so long ago Silk Road caravans watered at the famous spring. The garden is a cool, green oasis, criss-crossed by tiled water channels which make it an exquisite refuge from the heat of the city. Kashan is also the site of Sialk Hills, a working archaeological dig many of whose artefacts are in the National Archaeological museum in Tehran. Kashan is best known for its merchant houses, particularly the beautiful Tabatabaei House, a late 19th century Silk Road merchant’s house and for its ‘lovely ‘traditional house’ hotels.
It’s easy to see how Isfahan earned the lazy-rhyme Esfahan nesf-e jahan (Esfahan is half the world) Best known as the cultural jewel in Iran’s crown Isfahan was built in the 16th century as the capital of the Persian Safavid dynasty. Now days it is revered by locals and travellers alike as one of the finest expressions of Islamic art in the World. It’s a well-deserved title with stunningly ornate bridges, mosques and palaces which showcase Persia’s most refined developments in architecture. Isfahan is a great place to wander; it’s a pedestrian’s city with parks, gardens and a great collection of traditional tea houses....read less
The man was a dark shadow silhouetted against the bright sunlight pouring into the courtyard. He wanted to demonstrate how sound moved in the huge archways and empty spaces of the mosque and asked for few moments silence. His three short verses soared up into the dimness and reverberated with such clarity that I was momentarily startled.
Isfahanis argue that Isfahan is half the world and it’s a claim with some substance. The Imam Mosque in Isfahan is rightly celebrated as the peak of the 16th-century Safavid dynasty’s architecture and the beautiful Imam Square with its splendid ensemble of mosques; palace and bazaar are icons of Persian culture. It is a captivating and traveller friendly city packed with restaurants, artisan shops and hospitable folk. An evening stroll along the banks of the nearby Zayandah River is a great place to take apple tea, meet the locals and connect with provincial Iran.
My 23-day Iran Adventure started in Tehran and Ayatollah Khomeini International Airport is the obvious place to start. Tehran is a bustling, busy place with an eye on the future. There are a number of national institutions here which together provide an excellent introduction to modern Iran and ancient Persia.
Catching your breath in Tehran can be hard. There is too much to see and too many diversions. Carpets, their provenance, style, origin, dyes and designs are all explained in The National Carpet Museum where hundreds of carpets are on display. The National Archaeological Museum does a nice Ancient History 101 for anyone interested in a culture and history but a few minutes in the National Jewellery Museum, will definitely take your breath away. The Jewellery Museum occupies a room the size of several squash courts underneath the Bank of Iran in Firdowsi Street and here the enormous treasure of the Pahlavi Royals is on display. Diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires and an endless collection of pearls compete for space amongst jewellery encrusted military garb, and Crowns that are adorned with the world’s largest diamonds.
Tehran’s highlights don’t stop with there. The free-spending Pahlavi dynasty built Sad Abad Palace on the cooler hills above Teheran as a weekend retreat to house the Royal Automobile collection, the Royal Dishware collection (the best of Spode, Delft, Wedgwood, Royal Doulton) and military paraphernalia.
Teheran also offers a lot of foodie choices. Options range from excellent street fare like falafel rolls to charming traditional restaurants, offering Iranian dishes such zereshk polo (chicken and barberries) or favourites like gheimeh (a warm, meaty, eggplant dish) desserts such as shole zard (saffron rice pudding).
Story and pictures by Alison Reid ,
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